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Nursing Shortage A Health Hazard

The nation's nursing shortage has had significant consequences during the past five years, even contributing to patient injuries and deaths, a hospital regulatory agency says.

Inadequate nurse staffing has been a factor in 24 percent of the 1,609 cases involving death, injury or permanent loss of function reported since 1997 to the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations.

A commission report on the nursing shortage to be released Wednesday doesn't detail the cases in which a lack of nurses played a role, and Dr. Dennis O'Leary, commission president, was unable to provide examples.

The report says there are 126,000 nursing positions unfilled in hospitals nationwide. Ninety percent of long-term care organizations lack sufficient nurses "to provide even the most basic care" and some home-health care agencies are being forced to refuse new patients, according to the report.

With the aging of the nation's baby boomers and nurses themselves, it has been estimated that by 2020 "there will be at least 400,000 fewer nurses available to provide care than will be needed," the report says.

More optimistically, the report cites 50 hospitals nationwide that are considered nursing "magnets" and have avoided or overcome shortages. More federal money and improving the work environment for nurses can help other hospitals follow suit, the report says.

The report was issued less than a week after President Bush signed a bill designed to ease the shortage. The new law will create government nursing scholarships for students who agree to work at least two years in a health care facility with a critical shortage after they graduate.

By Lindsey Tanner

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